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Cardinal Pell is freed after Australian High Court finds fault in sexual abuse charges

Before his conviction was overturned, Pell had been the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official ever convicted of abuse.

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinal George Pell, who was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted in late 2018 of the sexual assault of an underage choirboy in the late 1990s, was released Tuesday (April 7) in Australia and all charges were dropped.

Pell was the highest-ranking Catholic leader ever to be convicted of crimes relating to the sexual abuse of minors.

The High Court of Australia, comparable to the Supreme Court of the United States, voted 7-0 to release the cardinal immediately.

“It is evident that there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof,” the full decision of the High Court said.

Pell was convicted on Dec. 11, 2018, by the County Court of Victoria on the single charge of sexually assaulting an underage boy and other acts of indecency in the presence of minors. The crimes allegedly took place in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, where Pell served as bishop between December 1996 and February 1997.

The 78-year-old cardinal — who has maintained his innocence — spent 13 months and 10 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement.

The High Court decided that the testimony of the alleged victim was impossible to reconcile with the facts surrounding where and how the crimes were allegedly committed.

“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Pell said in a statement after his release.

The cardinal said he looks forward to reading the judgment of the High Court, which he said “remedied” the injustice of his conviction.

“I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel,” he said.

Australia, like many other countries, has been grappling with the extent of sexual abuse by clergy. A 2017 report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found over 4,000 claims of sexual abuse by clergy in Australia and 1,880 suspected abusers in the Catholic Church between 1980 and 2015.

Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric to face sex charges, leaves court in Melbourne, Australia, on May 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Pell said his trial was “not a referendum on the Catholic Church” and does not reflect how church authorities “dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church.”

“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he said. “The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth because justice means truth for all.”

The cardinal thanked his advisers, his friends and supporters overseas and his legal team “for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.”

In 2013, Pope Francis appointed Pell to the Council of Cardinals, a select group of prelates called to advise the pontiff on the government of the Catholic Church and help enact the reform of the Roman Curia, the system of offices and departments that make up the Vatican bureaucracy.

The following year, Francis selected Pell to lead the Vatican’s financial reform as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

The Vatican’s finances are currently under scrutiny since the Catholic institution became involved in a controversial purchase of upscale rental properties in the United Kingdom.

RELATED: Vatican police raid home, office of influential church official in investment inquiry

Pell was removed from the Council of Cardinals in December 2018 and his role as prefect expired in February 2019. The new prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy is Jesuit priest Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves.

“The Holy See, which has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority, welcomes the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence,” a Vatican statement said on Tuesday.

“At the same time, the Holy See reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors,” it added.

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